By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Tech men's basketball turned in an inspired effort to climb back and threaten Murray State all the way to the end of its Hooper Eblen Center match-up Saturday evening.
At the conclusion of the contest, the Racers (11-5, 4-0) stood on top, 81-69, but it was a win the visitors had to work extra hard for. Murray State looked well on its way to an easy victory over the Golden Eagles (3-14, 0-4), using a 21-0 run to take an 18-point lead at the 11:19 mark of the first half.
Tech chose the path of resilience rather than backing down, answering its long-time, Ohio Valley Conference rivals with a 15-0 stretch of its own. The purple and gold continued to claw back, pulling to within a single point at the break thanks to a buzzer-beating triple from sophomore point guard Jr. Clay.
"I thought there were a lot of good things in the game by us," Tech head coach John Pelphrey said. "I thought our effort, our heart, our toughness, and the guys believing and liking to play basketball were at the level you'd want them at. The togetherness not to quit and both the attitudes and body language were good. We're trying to move towards great, but we're really proud of our guys for all of that."
Early in the second half, the Golden Eagles evened things at 37-37, but never could find the go-ahead bucket. Tech kept the Racers inside a double-figure lead for much of the final 20 minutes, but a couple of late mini-runs allowed the visitors to extend it out a bit further and pull away.
Overall, the Racers scored 40 of their 81 points in the paint while snagging 10 offensive rebounds. Murray also earned 25 second-chance points, 10 more than the Golden Eagles. Tech was hot as a group from 3-point range, hitting 11-of-24 tries for 45.8 percent. The purple and gold also knocked down 10-of-12 free throws.
"I think tonight, Murray State showed why they are a really good program year-in and year-out," Pelphrey said. "They've very well-organized, they've got good players and they're well-coached. They know exactly where they're going with the basketball. They're level of execution down the stretch was a big factor in the game. You could just see the maturity level and understanding."
The veteran head coach was quick to state his and his staff's pleasure with the team's fortitude.
"They hit us pretty hard there after the first three minutes of the first half," Pelphrey expressed. "A lot of teams would fold, but our leadership on the team would not let it happen. Jr. [Clay] and the guys were talking the right talk in the huddle, in terms of calming down and having a calm mind. "Let's focus. Let's play the way we want to play." And then it turned. I think that's a really positive thing for these guys, because it wasn't like they were doing it against a basketball team came in here sleep-walking. They did it against a team that had a 21-0 run on them. They're to be commended and credit for that."
Clay, named Special Olympics Player of the Game, led all scorers with 18 points on 5-for-11 shooting. He hit two of his three attempts from deep and converted all six of his free throw tries. The Chattanooga native led the team with three steals and added four assists as well.
Both Keishawn Davidson and Darius Allen collected 11 points. A senior transfer, Allen also hauled in a team-high six rebounds while dishing out three assist and hitting three triples. Davidson dished out a team-best five helpers while also connecting on three treys.
The Golden Eagles will hit the road to continue OVC play, visiting SIUE in Edwardsville, Ill. on Thursday, Jan. 16. Tip is set for 7:30 p.m. CT and will follow the Tech women's contest. The purple and gold will then conclude the road trip with a Saturday afternoon match-up at Eastern Illinois.
Photo by Thomas Corhern